Favorite Uncle

Alan King remembers delivering the eulogy at a funeral where Milton Berle was among the mourners. “Milton started heckling me,” says King, 74. “He said I wasn’t funny enough.” A fate worse than death to Berle, who died March 27 from colon cancer at age 93 after a career that lasted nearly a century. “I feel like a 20-year-old,” said Berle on his 90th birthday in 1998. Pause. “But there’s never one around.” Bada-bing!

The jokes—some 6.5 million of them, he boasted, always at the ready in his computer—were older than the man. Groaners. Head-slappers. (Nurse: “Doctor, there’s a man in the waiting room who says he’s invisible.” Doctor: “Tell him I can’t see him.”) But with his rubbery face, Bugs Bunny teeth and physical shtick that required no translation, Berle seemed eternal. He appeared in a 1914 silent movie, The Perils of Pauline, and, 81 years later, on Beverly Hills, 90210, doing an Emmy-nominated turn as an aging actor with Alzheimer’s disease. “Waiting for me to retire,” he once quipped, “is like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa.”

In the middle of that amazing run, Milton Berle made history. Tuesday nights on NBC’s nascent variety program Texaco Star Theatre, which premiered Sept. 21, 1948, Berle would bounce in front of a TV camera and yell, “Good evening, ladies and germs!” Doing stagy bits and stand-up silliness, sashaying in drag as Carmen Miranda, taking pies in the face and falling down screaming, he was TV’s first entertainment phenomenon. Berle miniaturized the Broadway revue to invent the medium’s first variety hour. He borrowed from radio to welcome TV’s first guest stars (everyone from Jimmy Durante to Frank Sinatra) and, he claimed, began the sitcom (in a bit called “The Berles at Home”). He even thought up the studio “Applause” sign. “Milton really was Mr. Television,” says fellow pioneer Sid Caesar.

For him, the laughs started impossibly early. Born Milton Berlinger in New York City, he was the fourth of five children of Sarah and Moses Berlinger. His three brothers—Phil, Francis and Jacob—were older; his sister Rosalind (a costumer who died of cancer at age 64 in 1977) was the baby of the family. Moses, who worked on and off as a salesman, had a sweet tooth for get-rich-quick schemes that soon turned sour. As a result, it was little Milton who was to support all the Berlingers. “My childhood,” he often ruefully said, “ended at the age of 5.” Accompanied everywhere by his fiercely protective mother, Milton won a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest in 1913 and began to make his showbiz bones as well as extra money. He was a child model for Buster Brown shoes and acted in silent films like Chaplin’s 1914 comedy Tillies Punctured Romance. He perfected a dance act and learned comedy timing from adult vaudeville performers. “While other kids were going to school and having friends their own age,” said Berle, whose own schooling was sporadic, “I was busy fighting with the drummers in pit bands all over the country.” Milton played the Palace—vaudeville’s New York City mecca—at 13. By his early 30s he was headlining at the International Casino, a Broadway nightclub, earning a then-hefty $6,000 a week. When he shortened his surname to Berle in 1920, the rest of the family took it as well, with “Mama,” as he always called her, even changing her first name to Sandra.

Berle’s relationship with Mama was close and complex. Until her death in 1954, when Berle was 46, Mama hardly ever missed a performance. “She poured all of her drive and passion for show business into me and my career,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 1990. “I wanted whatever she wanted.”

When he came of age, Mama fixed up her son with dates but shooed away any girl who became too serious. That left plenty of room for a passionate young man to play. Berle admitted that over the years he dated widely and sometimes not wisely. He claimed a youthful affair with the revivalist preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. He squired then-film starlet Lucille Ball and had a brief fling with Marilyn Monroe.

The peripatetic comedian settled down four times with three women. In 1941, while he was doing radio comedy and USO shows for the troops, Berle tied the knot with showgirl Joyce Mathews, who died in 1999 at age 80. Although they adopted a daughter, Victoria, now 56, Milton’s madcap schedule and Joyce’s desire to get back to her career spelled doom for the union. They divorced in 1947 but remarried briefly in 1949. Asked why the second time around, Berle said, “She reminded me of my first wife.”

Berle met his match at the altar in 1953 when he married levelheaded movie-industry publicist Ruth Cosgrove, 32, who was unawed by his star status and egocentric ways. They adopted a son, William, now 40 and a pilot and aviation expert, and lived happily together until Ruth’s death from cancer in 1989. He wed third wife Lorna Adams, a fashion designer, in 1991.

By the mid-’40s Berle had been pushing his radio network, NBC, and the Texas Company, the sponsor of his variety show, to get into the new medium of TV. In 1948 they took the plunge. Berle was raking in $10,000 per week as a nightclub headliner in New York City. But in the first year of his TV show he worked for a mere $1,500 per week, serving as star, director, producer and writer; by the end of his debut season, the number of homes with TVs had gone from 136,000 to 700,000.

He also made history in another way. “He was the first one to break the color barrier in television,” says dancer Prince Spencer, one of the Four Step Brothers. “Texaco didn’t want any blacks on the show. Five minutes before airtime, Milton said, ‘If you don’t put the Step Brothers on, you don’t get Berle.’ And of course they had to let us on.”

Parents often complained to the network that after watching Berle, their kids didn’t want to go to bed on time. So at the end of one show Berle said, “Listen to your Uncle Miltie, and kiss Mommy and Daddy good night and go straight upstairs like good little boys and girls.” Within weeks, Uncle Miltie hats and lunch pails were selling briskly.

On the set, however, he had a less appealing reputation. “He could be an obsessive-compulsive,” says TV producer George Schlatter (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In). “He didn’t want to just entertain you; he wanted to pulverize the audience.” To that end, “he would lie on the floor behind the camera and direct people,” recalls actor Arnold Stang. “He directed the orchestra leader.” Often accused of browbeating guest stars, the comic later acknowledged his steamroller tactics but said in his own defense, “Take a kid of 5 and make him a star…. It’s a miracle if that kid doesn’t grow up…to believe he’s Casanova and Einstein and Jesus Christ all rolled into one.”

In My Father, Uncle Miltie, his 1999 tell-all, William Berle couldn’t forgive his dad certain things. He said Milton was rarely around when he was growing up and treated him with a strange callousness. For his 16th birthday, wrote the younger Berle, his father sent a call girl to his Las Vegas hotel room.

Whatever the truth of his private life, there’s no doubt that Berle’s seven years as TV’s prime-time mover were the apex of his career. But even in his last years, slowed by a 1998 stroke and battling cancer, “he was always a ham bone,” says columnist Cindy Adams. “I saw him at a party a few weeks ago,” says dancer Ann Miller. “His spirits were great. When he saw me, he said, ‘Here comes Tippy Toes.’ ”

On March 27, a frail Berle lay in bed at his L.A. condo and bid goodbye to Lorna, 62. “I have nothing more to say,” she recalls him saying. He died in his sleep three hours later.

Among the 500 mourners at Berle’s April 1 funeral, fellow comedians Norm Crosby, Jan Murray, Don Rickles and Red Buttons affectionately tweaked him and each other. “Being around Milton, I got to hear the best jokes in the world,” said son-in-law Richard Moll (Night Court). “I would like to thank Shecky Green and the late Henny Youngman for those.”

Berle might have appreciated one more. A few days after his death, old pal Buddy Hackett phoned Lorna. “I said I had a vision. Milton’s already in heaven. He says to God, ‘I don’t want to tell you your business, but if you can move those clouds, the light will come on me, and these people have been waiting to see me a looooong time.’ ” Bada-bing indeed.

J.D. Reed

Frank Swertlow, Champ Clark and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles and Eric Francis in New York City

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